Energy experts have warned that maintenance being done on Eskom’s ageing and failing fleet of power stations is ineffective – with the power utility itself admitting that it is only able to temporarily halt the decline.
Speaking to the Sunday Times, Eskom said that older stations were breaking down so often that it was impossible for the company to do the necessary upgrades and refurbishments to keep the lights on.
Things are getting progressively worse, he said, and that this is to be expected of stations of this age.
Data presented to the paper showed that half of Eskom’s power stations break down again within nine months of being repaired, and some of the worst-performing stations are offline between 50% and 70% of the time.
This deterioration of the fleet was most apparent this past week when Eskom had to implement stage 6 load shedding for the longest time in its history to prevent a total blackout. While the group targets an energy availability factor (EAF) of 74%, it hit a low of 60% this week.
The deficit between supply and demand was between 5,000 and 6,000MW, necessitating the higher load shedding stages.
Not only is Eskom having to deal with increased breakdowns, but also a lack of skills and labour availability to deal with them. This was exacerbated by illegal wildcat strikes that took place this week, preventing the power utility from addressing EAF issues.
During a Friday (1 July) briefing on the power situation, Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter said that the power utility would be able to lift load shedding if striking workers would return to their posts.
As an essential service, workers at Eskom are not allowed to go on strike. However, this did not stop plant workers from downing tools, intimidating other workers and causing damage to property in certain locations.
De Ruyter said that disciplinary action would be taken against them, and where criminal acts took place, these workers will be reported to the police.
“We will be taking disciplinary action against workers that had stayed away unlawfully and that may include the application of the principle of their work and pay. Where there are acts of intimidation and violence, the Eskom disciplinary code will apply.”
Things are not improving
Energy experts told the Sunday Times that the repair work being done by Eskom is not enough – or even not correct. The group is repairing units to get them back into operation as quickly as possible, instead of addressing long-term problems that lead to their failure, they said.
The power utility is also putting its focus on new energy projects – many of which will not be online for several years. This means that things are unlikely to improve in the near-to-mid term, which will have a significant impact on the economy.
Analysts at professional services firm PwC said that despite progress on some structural economic reforms in recent years, South Africa’s electricity supply situation has shown no improvement.
“While power purchase agreements for three projects with a capacity of 150MW were signed in early June, this power will only start to materialise in 2024. At the same time, Eskom’s EAF dropped to 61.2% in the third week of June, with three-quarters of outages due to unplanned breakdowns.
“The low EAF and unreliable supply of power is the primary constraint on faster economic growth and will limit medium-to-long-term potential growth to around 1.5% per annum,” PwC said.
Prolonged load shedding will lead to a downside scenario where South Africa’s GDP growth falls to just 1.2% next year, it said.
Alexforbes chief economist Isaah Mhlanga said Eskom’s prolonged stage 6 load shedding has already caused significant damage to the country’s economy, with over R4 billion wiped from the GDP for each day it continues.
Speaking to Moneyweb radio on Thursday, Mhlanga said this means the economy suffered a R12 billion blow – at least – between Tuesday and Thursday this week.
Eskom downgraded load shedding to stage 4 on Friday – however, this remains at some of the highest levels seen to date. Analysis by Bloomberg pointed out that at 2,276 gigawatt-hours cut by Eskom this year so far, South Africa is already at 90% of the gigawatt-hours cut in 2021 entirely.
With six months remaining in 2022, there is little doubt that this year will be the worst year of load shedding on record.